The Kentucky Derby Festival is one of my favorite times of the year. I have watched the Kentucky Derby since I was a child. Since I was 18 years old until last year, I either attended or hosted a Derby Day party, bet on the Derby as well as other Derby Day Races, and drew names of horses from $2 and $5 pots. I am not a gambler, but Derby Day is the one day a year when I love to bet on the horses. The events during the two-week Derby Festival, such as Thunder Over Louisville, the Great Balloonfest, the Pegasus Parade, and the Great Steamboat Race, just to name a few, set the tone of excitement for the Derby Day finale.
I attended Derby Eve Jam when I was 20 years old in 1980 and saw Journey with the Babys perform. I have actually only been to the Derby one time, to the amazement of co-workers at Fort Knox who could not understand how I could live so close to it and not go. Personally, I would rather watch it on television than to be in that crowd, but I am glad I got to experience it at least once. In 1976, I went with the Meade County Band. We were set up in the infield and I remember looking up at Millionaires Row with binoculars and seeing several celebrities to include Cher and Patrick Wayne, son of John Wayne. Bold Forbes won the Kentucky Derby that year.
The Kentucky Derby’s long history began in 1872 when Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark, one of the famed pair of Lewis and Clark,traveled to Europe and attended the Epsom Derby in England, which was a well-known horse race run since 1780. He also socialized with the French Jockey Club, a group that developed another popular horse race, the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps. Clark was inspired by his experiences and upon his return to the United States he was determined to create a spectacular horse racing event. His uncles, John and Henry Churchill, gifted Clark with the necessary land to develop a racetrack and he formally organized a group of local race fans to be named the Louisville Jockey Club in 1874. Clark and his new club raised funds to build a permanent racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. On May 17, 1875, the racetrack opened its gates and the Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the very first Kentucky Derby. A total of fifteen three-year-old Thoroughbred horses raced one and a half miles in front of a cheering crowd of approximately 10,000 spectators. Aristides was the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.
The Triple Crown is a title awarded to a three-year-old Thoroughbred horse who wins the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. In the history of the Triple Crown, 13 horses have won all three races: Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharaoh (2015) , and Justify (2018). Secretariat holds the stakes record time for each of the three races. His time of 2.24 for 1 ½ miles in the 1973 Belmont Stakes also set a world record that still stands. Justify is the only living Triple Crown Winner since American Pharaoh passed away in 2020.
James E. “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons was the first trainer to win the Triple Crown more than once. He trained both Gallant Fox and Omaha. Gallant Fox and Omaha are the only father-son pair to each win the Triple Crown. Bob Baffert became the second trainer to accomplish this feat, training American Pharaoh and Justify. Belair Stud and Calumet Farm are tied as owners with the most Triple Crown victories with two each.
Once the schedules were set for the Triple Crown (Derby-1st Saturday in May, Preakness, 3rd Saturday in May, and Belmont, 3rd Saturday following the Preakness), scheduling has only been affected twice. During World War II, the 1945 Kentucky Derby was moved from May 5 to June 9, with the Preakness and Belmont following on June 16 and June 23. In 2020, the Triple Crown was altered from its usual sequence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It started with the Belmont States on June 20, at a shortened distance of 1 1/8 miles. The Kentucky Derby ran on September 5, and finally the Preakness on October 3. 2020 was the first time for the Belmont Stakes to be run as the opening leg of the Triple Crown.
As with any major event, the Kentucky Derby has undergone various changes over the course of three centuries. Some of the most important changes are listed below:
1883-Leonatus wins the Derby and the name “Churchill Downs” is first used to landmark the racetrack that is the home of the Kentucky Derby.
1894-Due to the growing crowd size, a 285-foot grandstand is constructed to accommodate race fans. Chant wins the Derby.
1895-The famed Twin Spires greet the Kentucky Derby Crown. Halma wins the Derby.
1896-The distance of the Derby is shortened from one and a half miles to one and a quarter miles. Ben Brus